tv 1790 Congressional Debate on Slavery Race CSPAN December 30, 2017 10:30am-11:31am EST
/history. >> in the spring of 1790, the first congress meeting in their second session engaged in a debate about slavery and race while considering a number of anti-slavery petitions they had received. up next on american history tv, history professor paul talks about slavery and race and argues that this discussion, which focused on congress's ability to interfere with slavery and on the definition of a citizen set the tone for the race in america for the next seven decades. the historical society hosted this event and it is about an hour. >> today, we will start with paul polgar who is a longtime colleague of mine, he started
interning with the first federal congress project a long time ago. he is not sensitive about his age. he is too young to be that it seems like it was a long time ago and we were able to see him take some of these the he -- some of the stuff he worked within our office, develop that and work it into his phd dissertation, which is the basis for his first book. a well grounded hope, abolishing slavery and racial inequality in early america. he teaches at the university of mississippi, now we are really fortunate to have him come all the way up here to d.c. i want to thank the other people who made this a truly national event, with a scope that goes beyond this area code. we have a visitor from the west coast, from california, a good friend of ours. and another wonderful friend from new york city.
for some reason, i am forgetting your name. i am sorry, john. maurice represents the harvard conservancy. who is developing the federal hall site of where the first federal congress met into a going thing. a real destination in lower manhattan for studies of the early congresses. welcome to everybody, whether you came from near or far. let's welcome paul polgar. [applause] professor polgar: thank you for that introduction. i would like to thank the u.s. capital historical society for inviting me here today for my talk today entitled congress' first debate on slavery and race is going to attempt to demonstrate the central ways this first national congressional debate set the tone for these larger issues of slavery and race as they would play out over seven decades,
stretching all the way to the outbreak of the civil war. the subject focused on the talk will focus on the debate as it unfolded in 1790. in the early months of 1790, the house of representatives was consumed by the issue of slavery. triggered by a set of petitions asking the first federal congress to take anti-slavery measures, this debate grips the lower house of the legislator for days. historians have interpreted this early episode in a long history of congressional grappling with the institution of slavery. some have pointed to the role of these debates as establishing the infamous gag rule, which would silence future additions to slavery to congress. others have highlighted the congressional resolutions resulting from the debates, arguing they would close substantive action on the federal level and represent a lost opportunity for legislating against slavery in early
america. still others have downplayed the supposedly victories of slavery's defenders, insisting instead that debates concluded with an anti-slavery victory, namely the assertion that congress could regulate the slave trade. yet what all of these interpretations share is an implicit assumption that a holy -- on congressional jurisdiction over slavery in the slave trade. when i will argue today is at the heart of this debate is a struggle not simply or primarily over constitutional or congressional provisions, but rather one over fundamental principles. on one side those who highlighted human over property rights and imagined american revolutionary ideals of natural and equal liberty as applicable to those with black skin. in a series of petitions that generated this heated debate, antislavery activist, and
especially the pennsylvania abolition society put forth a vision of a new nation that imagined a racially inclusive republic where the basic rights of enslaved africans were respected. opposite the petitioners, a congressman from the lower south, here, i'm referring to georgia and south carolina, these men answered the anti-slavery rhetoric of the petitioners by underlining the sanctity of property rights and depicting slaves as inferior to their white counterparts, unfit for the liberty the petitioners argued was a natural right of all. thus, congress' first debate over slavery exposed wrist over over the meaning of race and a place of human bondage in the american nation. a rift over principles that would shape the contours of the nation's growing division regarding the peculiar institution for generations to come.
after a hard-fought battle to ratify the constitution, the first federal congress convened in new york of april of 1789. if the constitution gave a blueprint for federal governance, the first congress was left to interpret it design and set precedents in national lawmaking. i have here an illustration of federal hall, where the first congress met during its first two sessions before moving in december of 1790 to philadelphia where it would stay for a decade. before coming to what became washington, d.c. is located in what now is the federal district. sus issues -- such issues as creating a financial system, funding the revolutionary war debt and locating a permanent seat of government were some of the most important subject tackled by the nation's first congress. one topic, however, the congress did not expect to address was slavery.
the federal convention of 1787 resulted in a constitution that gave no indisputable victory to pro or anti-slavery interest. as with many divisive subjects standing in the way of creating a stronger union, the federal constitution retained enough ambiguity to allow states opposed to and in favor of slavery to ratify the document. so it would fall to congress to flesh out these ambiguities, either embracing or rejecting principles hostile to slavery. on february 11, 1790, 1 month into the second session of the first congress, representative thomas fitzsimmons and john lawrence presented anti-slave trade petitions from their quaker yearly meetings. quakers were the leading religious group opposed to
slavery during this time. these petitions argued the slave trade violated the sanctity of the social compact and the-based -- and dehumanized all those who took part in it. trafficking of our fellow men, one of our petitioners read was inhuman tyranny, and destructive to the virtues and happiness of the people. in asking the first congress to turn their attention to a case so interesting to the rights of men, the petitioners wanted the house to exert full extent of your power in discouraging the abominable commerce that was the slave trade. if the petitions of february 11 sent tremors through the house, when a third antislavery petition, this time from the pennsylvania abolition society, reached the floor the following day, it would register as a massive earthquake.
whereas the previous petitions called for congress to examine its powers regarding the slave trade, the pennsylvania abolition societies petition address the house in much broader and much more threatening abolitionist terms. i have here an image of the petition as it was submitted to congress. now, it is worth quoting from this petition at length to capture the scope of this attack on human bondage, so i will quote at length from the petition. "from the regard of the happiness of mankind, and association was formed several years ago in the state." the petitioners are referring to the pennsylvania abolition society. "a just and accurate consumption of the two principles of liberty as they spread through the land produces many friends in the legislative cooperation of their views, which was successfully directed to the removing their
bondage a number of fellow black humans. they were referring to the pennsylvania abolition act of 1780. the petitioners have the satisfaction to observe that in consequence of that spirit of philanthropy and genuine liberty which is generally diffusing. , similar institutions are gradually forming, both at home and abroad. that mankind are all formed by the same almighty being, the object of his care and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness, the christian religion teaches us to believe and the political creed of america fully coincides this position. your memorialist has observed with great satisfaction that many important powers are vested in you. quoting the constitution, securing the blessings of liberty to the people of the united states.
and, as they concede these ought to be administered without distinction of color to all descriptions of people, so they indulge themselves the pleasing expectation that nothing which can be done for the relief of the unhappy objects of their care would be either omitted or delayed. from a persuasion that equal liberty is the birthright of all men and influenced by the strong tides of humanity and the principles of their institution, your memorialist conceived themselves, bound to use all justifiable endeavors to loosen the bounds of slavery and promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom. that you will be pleased to countenance the registration of liberty to those unhappy men, alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage. that you will devise means for removing this inconsistency from the character of the american people. that you will promote mercy and justice toward this distressed
race and step to the verge of the powers vested in you for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow man." the petition would have been read out loud just like that. in fact, it was read by the speaker of the house, so you have to imagine other congressman receiving this. we will sort of understand their response. while the petition technically here asked the house to apply jurisdictional powers over the slave trade specifically, it's aims, as you have all heard by now, were much more encompassing. the pennsylvania abolition society led the antislavery movement in its state. pennsylvania passed the gradual emancipation law in 1780 and society was now working to incorporate former slaves into the republic as citizens. calling for the application of its principles to the nation at large, the abolition society
projected confidence that the course of history was on its side. it is referencing the abolition act, referencing there are societies forming at home and internationally. there's a real sense of confidence in this petition. the petition argued people of african descent were entitled to an equal liberty with their free white counterparts. emphasizing the equal humanity of slaves rather than their status as property, they urged congress to approach the topic of slavery in this light. moreover, the petition linked to the founding principles of the nation, what it called the political creed of america, with the cause of slavery's abolition. to clinch this point, we -- the pennsylvania abolition society had its president and a leading figure of american national identity sign the document. you can see in the bottom right corner, for those of you who
don't spend your days reading 18th-century handwriting, take my word for that is indeed benjamin franklin's signature. benjamin franklin, the president of the society. the petition at the site, not only to assert immediate powers over regulating the slave trade, but also to ratify a larger vision of the republic as a land of genuine liberty. a nation where the rights and humanity of enslaved blacks were acknowledged. here, i want to show you the seal of the pennsylvania abolition society, which i think neatly encapsulates the ideas of -- ideals of the society. you can see here a slave, having broken his chains, standing up, and this white anti-slavery activist has taken his hand. they are standing side-by-side. as i said, this petition is asking the house not only to assert its immediate powers over regulating the slave trade, but
ultimately to endorse its larger vision. now, whereas lower southern congressmen, who we will hear more from coming up, quickly denounced the petitions, representatives from the mid-atlantic and -- mid-atlantic states and new england's states endorsed what they saw as the moral and humanistic foresight of the petitioners. thomas scott of pennsylvania project did a strong voice of support for the antislavery petitioners. in answering a lower southern contention, he pronounced it was not possible that one man would have property in the person of another. if there was neither god nor devil, god declared he would oppose the slave trade on principles of humanity in the laws of nature. scott offered that if you were a -- if he were a federal judge and slaves asked him for freedom, and i quote again "i am sure i would go as far as i could in emancipating them."
john lawrence seconded the sentiment of scott and recommended that the petitions be referred to a committee. after two days of debate, the house voted to commit the petitions to a special committee for consideration. the select committee charged with drafting a report on the antislavery petitions completed their work on march 1 and submitted to the house the product of their deliberation four days later. the first cause of the report reiterated the federal constitutions pledge to refrain from interfering with the slave trade before 1808. the second clause said congress is restrained from participating in the emancipation period, mentioned in 1808. this section of the report was interpreted by william lawton smith of south carolina as leaving open the possibility that after 1808, congress could not only ban the slave trade but
regularly and perhaps end slavery altogether. the third permission granted that only the individual states could make laws relating to the education, morality, religion , and overall welfare of the slave, even though it wanted states to promote the happiness of the slave. these provisions recognized the ability to regulate the foreign slave trade. finally, the seventh clause endorsed the antislavery intentions of the petitioners. informing the petitioners that in all cases where congress could advance humane objects based on principles of justice, humanity and good policy, they would do so. to the lower southerners, who had opposed considering the petition altogether, and wanted to table the petitions and silence them, any report was bound to disappoint. especially disturbing was a second clause that could be read
to opening the door to federally sectioned emancipation, even though every congressman who spoke in the debates would deny the power of the federal government to abolish slavery on the state level. additionally, the final clause implied solidarity with the petitioner's perspective and appeared to support the petitioner's code of ethics. the lower southerners succeeded temporarily in tabling the report, but the house agreed to take up the report on march 16. to fully grasp why the lower southern representatives would offer an elaborate justification for slavery, it is very important that we first acknowledge the defensive position these congressmen found themselves in during the first congress. in 1790, it was far from certain whether slavery would survive in the new republic. indeed, many of the founding generation believed slavery was doomed to die out. by the time the first congress met, all five of the new england
states and pennsylvania had -- states, along with pennsylvania had either ended slavery judicially or put them on the road through extinction on the path to emancipation laws. new york and new jersey were widely seen as soon to follow their mid-atlantic members and would do so with the passage of gradual abolition act of 1799. and 1804, respectively. in virginia and maryland, the declining viability of the tobacco economy had led to the freeing of slaves voluntarily, and lifted restrictions on the slaveholders' ability to limit -- liberate. as they took of the antislavery petitions, only south carolina and georgia appeared unequivocally committed to the long-term presence of slavery in independent america. furthermore, there is no what we would call solid south political alignment, completely or -- completely committed, or unabashedly committed to favoring the institution of slavery at this time. revealingly, virginia was often lumped together by national
politicians with new york and pennsylvania. a mix of the rhetorical championing of the ideas of liberty and equality by some of virginia's leading political figures and the states economic self interest, virginia had an excess of slaves, they stood to gain economically from any congressional action taken against the slave trade. all of this meant that lower southerners could not count on their upper southern neighbors for ideological support for slavery. taking into account these factors, lower southern members of the house must've been greatly alarmed by the abolition society petition that was read before the house. it urged congress to apply the society's principles as a guide to dealing with the issue of slavery on the national level. finding themselves boxed in politically, congressmen from south carolina and georgia would feel compelled to combat the principles of the antislavery petitioners with what they viewed as a principal defense of slavery.
slavery's proponents relied on a bevy of arguments in defending bondage. repeatedly, lower southerners attacked the quakers as misguided and subversive. the decision of many quakers to remain neutral during the revolutionary war showed them to be cowardly traitors, posing as conscientious objectors while the patriots fought the british and brought into question the quakers loyalty to the american republic. lower southerners attacked these antislavery messengers in attempt to marginalized religious sect rather than the universal one intimately connected with the meaning of american independence. yet, on its own, sullying the character of the quakers left the content of the petitions on -- unanswered. slavery defenders also turned to ancient but revered sources in making their case, both the
greek and roman empires, two influential models for the american republic practice slavery. in fact, every civilization of consequence in human history permitted bondage, the lower southerners insisted. historical precedents of this kind carry little weight. in a country already celebrating its self identifying nature, endorsement from the past ring hollow. biblical authority provided a third area for lower southerners to turn. slavery's defenders scoured the good books passages that condoned slavery and recited to their colleagues those excerpts they interpreted as doing just that. but turning to the bible was a mixed blessing for slavery defenders. anti-slavery activists could harness the christian precepts of altruism, benevolence in -- and the single creation in answering slavery's advocates. the inconclusive effect of these strategies in defending slavery left lower southerners to tap economic utility, political
compromise, property rights, and race. political compromise, the federal constitution was based on balancing state interest and utility, only people of african descent could work in the tropical environment of the south, lacked a rationale and did not counter the petitioner's claims of underlying black equality. this left property rights and race. as we shall see, in defending american slavery, the lower southerners would merge property rights with racial inferiority and allegations of black incapacity for freedom. on march 16, thomas of south carolina initiated the second round of debates on slavery when he offered a motion to substitute the entirety of the report with "that congress could not take said memorial into their consideration, as being unconstitutional and tending to
injure some of the states of the union." james jackson of georgia, regarded, by his colleagues as a cantankerous orator, seconded the motion and spoke for over one hour. here is a portrait of james jackson. attesting to the sanctity of property rights, jackson asked his colleagues at the rights of liberty are not adequate to the rights of person. and if entering into the constitution, the meaning of it was not to secure the citizens in possession of one as well as the other. in other words, property rights were indistinguishable from natural rights. jackson was pushing back against the petitioner's emphasis on the natural rights of slaves to freedom. but in defending slavery, jackson went beyond underscoring the centrality of property rights to the founding of the new nation. to counter the petitioner's portrait of the equal humanity of slaves, jackson laid out his version of the nature of enslaved africans and african americans.
the west african countries from which american slaves originated followed a despotic and tyrannical social model, in exercised absolute authority over the property, persons of all those in his dominion, according to jackson. thus, africans were perpetuated from their earliest experiences and what jackson considered barbaric africa. universally with their mothers milk, this elixir of servitude, nature to serve as slaves. to further augment his justification for slavery, jackson turned to the prospect of emancipation. if the slaves were freed, what next? jackson pointed out that thomas jefferson in the state of virginia already examined the question from slavery's abolition and concluded that should slaves be liberated within greater american society "deep-rooted prejudice interesting by the whites, long-held animosity held by the
blacks, the physical and moral differences between these two groups, and the real distinction nature has made with result in a race war." jackson concurred with jefferson that unavoidable racial polarization concluded any -- precluded any prospect of an america where white and blacks freemen would live side-by-side. -- jackson said there was a great distinction between the subject of liberty. holding up the exam feel -- example of marilyn where slaves had resulted in a growing free black population. those liberated had resorted to stealing rather than working and have become common to pockets and only -- common pickpockets and they only harm the greater society into which they were freed. i quote again, the sound of liberty, when applied to liberty, jackson warned has this consequence. for jackson, any effort to free the people whose natural
this positions that predisposed them to slavery was not only a waste of time and resources, but also in the face of nature's intended design for african, unconditional bondage. following jackson's speech, the members of the house voted down the proposed amendment to the report. the report continued to be debated and considered. during the next day's debate, william smith and a dennis burke representing south carolina joined jackson in aggressively defending slavery. both speakers echoed jackson's depiction of slaves as culturally and inherently inferior and naturally fit for bondage. by advocating emancipation, the petitioners are doing an active inhumanity to the slaves. during the late revolution, america witnessed how unfit people of african descent were for freedom. at that time, the mender of the british army conferred liberty to thousands of blacks as he swept through the southern countryside.
but he erroneously claimed most of these former slaves died, thereby demonstrating how totally incapable he or a slave is in keeping their liberty. he followed the speech with two hours, seeking to filibuster the report, in the process he intended to show that slavery is not that dark thing detested by many americans. here is william smith. like jackson before him, he use the hypothetical of slavery's abolition to strengthen his justification for black slavery. he too turned to thomas jefferson. jefferson, a man of enlightened understanding had already proven blacks, by nature and inferior human beings, even to the indians. in jefferson's notes on the
state of virginia, may the goal of emancipation a fatal enterprise and a direct threat for the well-being of the nation's white population. should the nation and eradicate slavery and admit lack people into white society, it would permanently alter the country's character for the blood of the white. the potential for a race award manifested, and racial intermixture. the inherent incompatibility of black and white would lead to a bloody battle with the strongest party, presumably the whites left to "murder" the weaker. in smith's estimation, externally imposed black freedom could never hold up in the face of nature's plan for those of african descent. africans and african american were of ours -- a verse to labor. when emancipated they would starve or plunder. even if a plan of emancipation
were enacted to rub the country, smith said racist would still remain distinct. while the petitioners argued that nature had made all men equal, here i am quoting jackson , quoting his interpretation of the petitioner. nature meant all men equal, that is a difference of color. they should not place negroes on a worse place in society. the ideals would wither in the harsh reality of white prejudice. he labeled them hypocrites and declared that even the warmest friends of blacks kept them at a distance. inferiority of black slaves come he said not only an absolute feature of nature but an inescapable social reality. it would nullify any attempt to make them free and equal. two of the anti-slavery petitioners' most vocal proponents put forth intense ideological opposition to human bondage, but did so in ways that at first glance seemed unthreatening to the institution of slavery.
men from states with active anti-slavery constituencies adopted a way of speaking about slavery that made it holy out of place in the united states, even as they conceded the federal government was powerless to end slavery. here is an illustration of one. he was an important defender of the petitioners. he declared slavery incompatible with america's founding principles. the lower southerners, he lectured, could no more legitimate bondage than the british could convince the former colonists that their tyrannical english law was just . furthermore, the declaration of independence laid out to the war that justice and freedom with the building blocks of the republic. here he read the declaration, that all men are created equal
and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. those words, he concluded, served as the "language of america." he roundly rejected the efforts of jackson and smith to harmonize slavery with the new nation. at the same time, he reassured the lower southerners that he recognized their right to hold people in chains. for him, there was a wide difference between justifying slavery and the slave trade and acknowledging a claim to property in the form of bonds person. what he failed to understand was that to the lower southerners, without justifying slavery, the property claim was not sufficiently secure. john vining was another house member who spoke in favor of the petitioners. he offered a ringing condemnation of slavery in at
the same time confessed that this condemnation was inapplicable to the subject at hand. an excerpt from one of his speeches, which i will read, captures this rhetoric at work. viewing the question as it regards general principles, i hold it to be an immutable truth that all men are created equal, and freedom is an inalienable -- unalienable right, and a state in which a man exists merely for the use of another is an unnatural state. a power to the exercise by what human being over another is a dangerous and unnatural power. but as these are general principles, i shall forbear at the lease commentary upon them. so they seemed to be telling the lower southerners, we tolerate your right to property person but we do not support the principle of enslaving these persons. this talk hardly constituted a secure promise to the slavery
defenders. if, to these middle of anti-representatives, the anti-slavery thrust of the american revolutionary thought was not connected to the house debate, to the lower southerners , this rhetoric was not simply an abstract or theoretical threat. the anti-slavery petitions turned the general principle they referenced into a tangible specter threatening to tear apart the fabric of slaveholding southern life. in turn, lower southern covers -- congressman compelled to defend slavery as a normal state for people they rendered an inferior race, incapable of living as free citizens. there emerged one house member that joined philosophical support for the petitioners with the willingness to entertain the possibility of broad federal powers over the issue of slavery. unfortunately, the one congressman in this debate, there is no portrait. we will have to imagine him.
on march 22 thomas scott of pennsylvania, the most strident defender of anti-slavery petition, broke out for the first time in over a month. scott listed hypothetical scenarios to illustrate his expansive view of the implied powers congress held over the slave trade, premised on the general welfare clause of the constitution, which we heard referenced in the petition. he acknowledged that congress was explicitly prohibited and stopping the importation of slaves for at least 20 years. but, what if congress determined that the person imported by the states possessed "inadmissible qualities" such as the plague, could not congress in stop the admission of such people? what if the state tried to import alien enemies? with arms to destroy the union. would congress not be empowered to intervene and stop calamity from taking place? scott had watched as the representatives from south carolina and georgia insisted
that the "wretched africans" were property and not people. if congress rated this claim, -- granted this claim, could not the federal government over the -- under regulating trade and commerce, put a stop to the slave trade? as for the relationship of race and slavery, congress had recently passed the naturalization act, giving the race of citizenship to immigrants who were free white persons only. as the role of centralization was an arbitrary rule, scott reminded the house that future congresses could "whenever they please, rewrite the law and the -- and declare that every person, blacks, white, blue or red, be not only free persons but free citizens." milling his -- scott's readings of the constitution gave the power of the federal government to end the slave trade and import
africans as citizens, thereby in the the differentiation. this exemplified the stuff of nightmares for lower southern congress. as a president of an abolitionist society of pennsylvania, scott's work in -- words captured the racially inclusive vision of the young republic held by the antislavery petitioners, the very vision that had caused defenders to counter that enslavement was the only of proper medscape for africans and black americans and the slavery was thereby an institution fully compatible with the new nation. for james jackson, scott's comments only confirm what he had known all along. the antislavery petitions represented a complete assault on the institution of slavery. therefore, while many members accused the lower southerners of displaying undue trepidation in their fiery reactions to the
petitions and the report for , jackson it was "the reality, not the bugbear we have raised." jackson spoke for the lower southern contingent when he raised concern that the concerns embodied in the petition could one day be applied with devastating effect to the slave south. i quote jackson here, "the declarations we hear on this floor will make them fear that if the door is once opened, their property is not secure, and if congress wants opened the door, i contend there was no bound at which they could stop ." in the end, neither the petitioners nor the lower southerners could claim total victory. following three days of debate on individual clauses, on march 23, 1790, the house came to an agreement. under james madison's motion, the house voted to substitute the word "until" with "prior to" in the first clause.
this maneuver left in tact the original constitution report on the slave trade. it read that the migration or importation of such persons cannot be prohibited by congress prior to the year 1808. this change was in response to lower southern concerns that the report's original language of until assumed the slave trade would be abolished in 1808, when in fact, congress was not obligated at all. the revised resolutions relating also favor then lower southerners. the second and third causes were struck out. a new resolution accorded exclusive jurisdiction for slavery to the individual states of the union. it read, let congress have no authority to interfere in the emancipation of slaves or
in the treatment of them within any of the states, it remaining with the several states alone to provide regulations therein which humanity and true policy may require. as is indicated in madison's role, the protestations of the georgians and south carolinians had forced virginia and -- virginian representatives to make clear their shared identification with the lower southerners as fellow planters seeking to protect the rights of slaveholders in the new republic. yet, we should also keep in mind that no congressman outside those in the lower south have asserted that the power to emancipate slaves lay with the federal government. this revised clause only restated what nearly every national politician believed. additionally, while william juan -- lawton smith proposed removing the word humanity, his motion did not pass.
smith fought unsuccessfully to rid the report of any words that echoed petitioners like richard in other ways, the lower southerners did not get what they hoped for. they do that while congress -- did not want congress to consider the petition. is a tried and failed to substitute the original report with the statement that congress should once again refused to consider the petition. then, a majority of george's into south carolina's representatives unsuccessfully opposed to the unprecedented step of having a final report recorded in the house journal, believing that doing so would give voice to a topic they wished to silence altogether and act as a president for future if -- future anti-slavery agitators. most unsatisfying way from the perspective of those such as james jackson and smith, despite the southerners long monologues, not one congressman outside of georgia or south carolina acquiesced in pronouncing human
bondage a just institution. in fact, several representatives expressed shock that any dignified statesman could dare to argue for the moral legitimacy of human bondage, and it is in this way the petitioners triumphed in the battle of anti-slavery and proslavery principles, broadcasting on a national level. the underlying ideas antithetical to slavery survived the debate intact, and explains why the vice president of the pennsylvania abolitionist society could conclude that the whole episode had "served to disseminate our principles" and led to a more general assent. this in turn showed that the time was not very distant when these principles would be "universally received and firmly established." to conclude, putting aside trying to identify the winners and losers in his first congressional tussle over american slavery, the ultimate legacy of the debate was a pivotal way in which it set the
terms for future national battles over the peculiar institution it is play in the american institution. from the missouri crisis of 1819 to the dread scott decision of 1857, from lincoln's commitment for the essential rights of slaves to alexander stephenson's assertion that the confederate nation was founded on a belief inferiority,lack the debate first emerged at the house of representatives at the inaugural meeting of congress. thank you. [applause] >> any questions? >> what was at stake here? the petition was not a bill that
congress could have accomplished anything. prof. polgar: these were resolutions. these resolutions expressed the feelings of one congress on interpreting the constitution. at one given moment in time. having said that, the constitution says that the slave trade cannot be ended before 1808. but it gives powers of congress to regulate the slave trade, the foreign slave trade could be regulated, and in fact there was a bill passed a few years later regulating the foreign slave trade. a tax could be applied to foreign slave trade. there was that reality. my argument is this was really about laying out the principles and the debate. yet remember, the constitutional convention steered clear of a lot of these principal arguments. it gave no clear victory to proslavery or anti-slavery interests.
taking a lot of interest to proslavery interest, but no absolute guarantee and the -- so when the first congress meets, there is this debate going on based on which principles would win out -- anti or proslavery. but they were a measure of how when congress was interpreting how the constitution could be applied to the institution of slavery. >> why did congress even have to consider these petitions? someone submits a petition to congress, why could they not just ignore? prof. polgar: they could. chuck who introduced me has written on this very fact, showing how the anti-slavery petitioners played an essential role in sort of establishing that petitions to congress could be about moral issues.
during the first congress and up to this point in the second session of the first congress, had been based on individual claims. revolutionary war soldiers trying to collect pensions and other things like that. this was a larger, huge issue. right? the quakers, in getting their petitions heard in getting any resolutions and a debate in a sense established that the federal government could take up moral issues. the federal government would do that through the early years of the republic, through because kinds of issues, temperance, the women's movement, further anti-slavery, all the way up to today with issues like questions of abortion rights. this was a pivotal moment in that way, as well. >> thank you very much. it was very illuminating. i am here from my book club.
african-american literary guild. at the moment, we are reading a new book, anti-slavery and slavery racist ideas." >> it is on my bookshelf. >> it is quite a read. you talk about the northern slaves having abolished slavery in their jurisdiction. that assumes there was slavery in the north. prof. polgar: there absolutely was. >> why did they become truer to the american ideals first? was it just economics that made them say slavery was not worth it? prof. polgar: certainly, the quick and easy answer is to say it is all dependent on what the proportion of slaveholders are in any given society. there are many more slaveholders who hold more power to desk power politically, -- power
politically, economically and socially in states like georgia and south carolina than in pennsylvania and new york. that is the easiest answer. however, we have to remember that just getting emancipation passed in states like pennsylvania and especially new york and new jersey were long, heated battles, where in a lot of this rhetoric and back and forth between those opposed to slavery and those for it laid out. it was not easy to abolish anywhere in the american republic. it was a very difficult battle wherever one turned. but the pennsylvania abolitionist society is totally locked in to this battle. they are sort of taking their experience in ideals and principles as they formed them over the course of already a number of years in fighting
against slavery and infighting to bring those principles and ideas to the national level. but yes, slavery is difficult to abolish everywhere in the united states. yes? role.jamin franklin's what the pennsylvania petition -- would be pennsylvania petition been given as much weight had not been the president of the society? prof. polgar: interesting question. there are two petitions from quaker yearly meetings that were also presented. these meetings have nothing to do with franklin. he did not sign the petition. on the one hand, you could say his role was not necessary for them to be heard. however, his signature on that document acts to sort of signal to congress that the principles of the pennsylvania abolition society are relevant.
that is the role his signature and involvement played. that was a very important one in this attempt to sort of project larger national congruence with the pennsylvania abolitionist society. james jackson accused franklin of being senile in the debates. he said this is the only way franklin could've possibly signed this petition. franklin got his revenge. he wrote a satire in a local newspaper imagining in algerian politician defending the slavery of christians 100 years before. of course, franklin was a master of satire, he showed -- he responded directly to jackson, showing he still had his full faculties.
this was really the last act of benjamin franklin because he died only weeks after writing this editorial. yes? >> more globally, what kind of discussion or debate was happening about slavery in europe at this time? prof. polgar: when i read the petition at length, the abolitionist society are pointing out that there are abolitionist societies that have emerged throughout the larger atlantic world, what we call europe. the london society has emerged in this period, and it is closely corresponding with the pennsylvania abolition society. there is a society in paris, which has also emerged in his -- and is corresponding. one of its leading advocates make the trip to philadelphia and new york to correspond in
-- and meet and create a joint effort between these societies. it is important to remember that this debate and antislavery activities involving the institution of slavery were unfolding in a much broader landscape beyond the united states. again, the pennsylvania society pointed to this and said, look. the trajectory not only of the nation is on our side, but also the broader atlantic world, because in fact slavery is on the defensive in england at this time, and it is on the defensive and will be on the defensive as the haitian revolution emerges, which has just -- was just about to begin a year after this debate. this was absolutely part of the broader global discussion.
yes? >> thank you so much for the information. i appreciate your research. every time a hear about slavery, you learn something new. one of the things i really hear -- rarely hear about is in addition to the moral, physical and mental degradation of the human being of color was the sexual abuses, as well. that seems to get pushed to the back of the story. by the way, there were x number of rapes, adultery, incestuous. i: ugly. -- i called it ugly. we have children born that were never recognized, shall i say?
and counted as members of the society. that is huge, and left at the bottom. i wish it would come up further. prof. polgar: yes, and i certainly don't mean to imply -- >> not you. [laughter] prof. polgar: but i totally agree with you. this in fact was a factor that abolitionist were beginning to point to and would especially to by the 1830's, when slavery is interpreted by white northerners as being especially offensive at the way it works up families, promotes sexual abuse of female sleeves -- female slaves who are not empowered. those arguments are just really beginning, they are in their infant stages during this period.
1830's, this is a key argument abolitionists are making, the way it degrades and dehumanizes sexually, right, slate women -- slave women, and at to the slave -- adds to the slave population. there is an economic interest in masters sexually violating slaves. it became a very important factor. >> wasn't one of the end results of this debate is that congress said they would not consider petitions on slavery anymore? prof. polgar: yes. i alluded to this in the opening. some historians have argued this was a prelude to the gag rule, it fully emerges later in the 1830's and you have a flood of petitions coming to congress. there is no absolute answer that. in a lot of ways, yes, it is setting a precedent that is
saying, antislavery petitions are not going to be handled in exactly in this way. it is true that if you after this, they table the discussions. they adopted this strategy. in a lot of ways, slavery on the national level is not going to burst out in this way continuously. however, i want to make clear that the slavery issue is not silenced on the national level at all. you can go through congressional records and see debates over slavery either regarding petitions or sometimes emerging indirectly with other issues. it is not as though the slavery issue is completely silenced at the national level. even if, right, the petitions are gagged in a certain way in
the years following. inspired people to look at this debate more in honest dimensions. there are plenty of dimensions to look at. one thing i would remind you, if you study this episode, the wider atlantic world, there is a lot going on in congress at this time. nothing is debated in congress ever in a vacuum. in this particular case, for those of you who have seen "hamilton," and you know his report on public credit is being debated at the same time. tensions in congress are already amped up. you get the crazy quakers and senile ben franklin throwing these potentially unconstitutional proposals, and things really start to ignite. bear that in mind. i am reminded, unless i am wrong in this, there are good and bad
sides to the anti-slavery debate being dragged out. some people say this is a titanic waste of time. we have more important things. somebody from pennsylvania saying let's drag it out more because we have some colleagues in pennsylvania who are not here yet to weigh in on a proposal on hamilton's system. you are a lot of things going on that make history exciting. thank you for sharing some of that. [applause] >> a tweet asking about an issue still resounding today, about how many people were fathered by
am and how areietn they treated after the u.s. of archer. -- departure. >> join the conversation on facebook at facebook.com/c-span history and on twitter at c-span history. ♪ tweetpan student's cam, a say it all, video editing and splicing for constitutional documentaries, this group showed us how it is done with two stellar interviews in one day. the students asked hard-hitting questions about immigration reform and the dream act. asking students to choose a provision of the u.s. constitution and create a video illustrating why it is important to our competition is open to all middle school and high school students, grades six through 12. $100,000 in cash prizes will be awarded and the grand prize of
$5,000 will go to the student or team with the best overall injury and the deadline is january 18. get contest details on our >> up next, a textile historian describes how beds owned by george washington at his mount vernon home or on the battlefield except his standing and wealth. in the 18th century, beds were luxury items, but even the wealthiest americans had to contend with various problems, including bedbugs. of a mountas part vernon symposium exploring the various places where washington lived or visited. associate curator here at mount vernon. it's my pleasure